The Most Hidden Calories
There are many obscure saboteurs waiting in the shadows when changing one's nutrition. There are internal doubts. There are external doubters. There are errantly-labeled "healthy foods." There is misinformation. There are stress responses. There are hormonal cascades. There are "role models" whose experience is singularly anomalous and in no way helpful. All of these add up to be an invisible noose snugly tied to the necks of people struggling with body composition change. Every time they look for the rope that's holding them back, they can't see it; but they can always feel it choking their progress. It's time to shred the rope.
For us to get on the same page, we need to start by clarifying 8 things:
1.) Calorie counting is generally not a sustainable lifestyle; it is best suited as an introductory eye-opener for new clients, a short-term trouble-shooting effort, a method of tracking for physique athletes in show prep, and a marker for getting ENOUGH calories for the competitive strength athlete or mass gaining client.
2.) Until you've done first-hand research on metabolic output, almost everything you know about metabolism and calorie burn is false. Twelve years ago I began running experiments with equipment that directly measures (rather than infers or approximately calculates) your actual oxygen consumption and thereby calorie use. Generally, the larger you are, the higher your metabolism. Skinny people don't have high metabolisms. That's demonstrably false. They have superior distribution of calories, whatever the amount. The holy grail is not rate. It's distribution.
3.) Eating more calories raises your caloric burn. Eating less lowers it. When "experts" calculate the calories you use, and prescribe you a "deficit" plan, it's snake oil. Your body adapts to the lower number almost immediately. You can measure this.
4.) Long bouts of steady state "cardio" suppress metabolism. Think about it. Everything your body experiences is a message. If your body experiences long exertion, the message is that it needs to be better adapted to long exertion. The adaptation is lower metabolic rate at rest in order to conserve energy for the next long bout. That's not to say there's no benefit. Certainly when people are going from completely sedentary to incorporating movement, there's a significant benefit. But longer bouts at moderate exertion make it impossible for a non-lean person to cross the threshold to being lean.
5.) Anaerobic work (high intensity and resistance training) is the only scaleable method of metabolic rate improvement; but, again, what we are actually interested in is distribution. The brief intense demand of anaerobic work will raise calorie burn for many hours (up to 72) after the exertion; but more importantly it distributes whatever calories you take more toward lean tissue. This is wholly independent from increased time of effort or increased daily steps. Anaerobic work can keep improving your body composition even if your hundredth workout is the same amount of time as your first. The focus is increased intensity. Classical low or moderate intensity steady state activity (walks, jogging, typical versions of "cardio"), on the other hand, only works progressively if you can continuously realistically do more and more time, working up to hours per day every day. When two hours of walking or jogging doesn't cut it, you'll have to do two and half. When that stops working, you'll have to do three. Forever this ante up continues. Alternatively, anaerobic work, by definition, cannot be performed for more than about 45 seconds at a time, and then you must rest before revisiting the intensity again. Including rests, anaerobic workouts can be about 15 minutes long, and need not be more than 45 minutes. They also don't need to be performed every day for results, because of the metabolic carryover, unlike low/moderate aerobic activity.
6.) Growth of any tissue (including fat) requires certain cascades, namely insulin release. 10,000 calories of dietary fat CANNOT stimulate insulin production. 10 calories of carbohydrate DOES stimulate insulin production. Anything that tastes sweet can set off a Pavlovian switch that stimulates insulin production. It had few or no calories, but now you have a growth cycle churning. What happens next? You get hungry. You eat. You feed the growth.
7.) Lower metabolic rate and lower calorie burn correlate to longer life expectancy. The only people on earth who make it past 100, 110 or 115 years old are small people who eat tiny amounts of food and have slow metabolisms. Burning more calories is not necessarily a worthy wellness goal. Pause for a moment. Would you prefer to have a 12,000 calorie per day metabolism that is directed at storing as much fat as possible and shortening your life or would you like an 800 calorie per day metabolism directly solely at lean mass, organ and brain integrity which will add years to your life and life to your years? People say your heart only has so many beats in a lifetime, so you have to conserve those beats. I don't think there's necessarily any science behind that statement, except for the fact that at prolonged elevated heart rate you train the heart to be inefficient. As your beats per minute increase, your stroke volume decreases. On top of that, elevated heart rate is indicative of sympathetic nervous system response or stress. Lean people and long lived people generally manage stress well. Purposely subjecting yourself to long bouts of stress is the definition of bad stress management. You are going to die younger and less healthy if you fall into the cardio volume trap.
8.) All calories and macronutrients are not the same. Despite the attempts of Dr. Twinkie and others, there is a very simple way of proving to people that it's not just about calories or macros. Have them drink snake venom, eat mad cow disease prions, or imbibe gasoline. The first is just proteins and peptides. The second is simply a protein. The third is just calories. There are many other examples; but this tends to drive the point home. Edible and well-tolerated foods are no different. They all fall on a continuum of harm-to-help. It's not that any one compound is all good or all bad. They are on a gray spectrum which approaches one end or the other based on timing, goals, individual epigenetics, hormone balance, and dose size, etc. This is why elimination diets and avoidance of gluten or other foods is not a fad or pseudoscience. Different foods can be inflammatory for someone even if they are generally classified as "healthy foods." Proteins are a set of instructions. Grain proteins, for example, send nasty signals even for those who can tolerate them well. Very educated people have contended this; but the fact remains that NO ONE has demonstrated that even gluten-tolerant humans can create an acid or digestive enzyme that breaks down the composite gluten protein into dipeptide and tripeptide bonds (the definition of a safe and usable protein). Fats are used for many things, including hormone production and cell membrane integrity. Vegetable oils, for example, are not easily converted to needed hormones, nor do they make healthy cell membranes. Carbohydrates fuel things. Certain types of fiber, for example, feed helpful bacteria. Sugars, even natural fruit sugars, feed deleterious bacteria, parasites and cancer cells. I repeat: all calories and macronutrients are not the same. Don't confuse the brilliant adaptability of the human organism with substance similarity. We can use mold to make antibiotics. Some bodies survive infection because of penicillin. Some bodies die from the penicillin.
Now that roughly we are on the same page, understand that almost every calorie is a silent saboteur when you are in a state of inflammation and fat tissue growth. The body is either in an anabolic state or a catabolic state. That is, either the systems of the body are building or they are breaking down. These states are mutually exclusive, cascading throughout the day like the ebb and flow of tides. So our job as sculptors of a new body is to direct the breakdown periods toward fat and minimize muscle degradation. The job during building periods is to direct energy disproportionately toward lean tissue and away from fat. Don't try to create high tide during low tide. It doesn't work that way.
As a grown adult, if you are already heavy and did not just complete an intense task, anything you eat will predominantly grow more fat. Eating is anabolic. If your body doesn't have a very stressed reason to grow bones, ligaments, tendons and muscle, anabolism is exclusively fat tissue growth. Eating shortly before exercise is confusing to the body. Are you signaling it to utilize fat stores and stress muscles to depletion so that you will adapt to be leaner and stronger? Only if you're fasted. Otherwise, you are signaling it to defend fat stores and avoid the level of stress to muscles that actually brings about adaptation for size, speed, strength and endurance.
This is biology. And, sadly, even among very knowledgable and accomplished coaches and athletes in the fitness industry, the concensus opinion is the opposite. The myth is propagated by successful trainers and competitors who succeed in spite of doing this incorrectly. They eat before workouts. They eat carbs in the morning. Most of them are extremely determined people. Some are genetic freaks. Almost all of them are leaner, carrying more lean mass and far more active and more powerfully stressing the body than the average human. They have different proportions of signaling to begin with. And some more yet are playing by a different set of rules altogether, because they are regulating hormones with exogenous substances. But make no mistake, they all would progress more rapidly and with less effort if they played by the laws of biology.
Let's compare two examples of what people incorrectly think of as "good" or "bad" behavior in different people with the same body weight to outline how this can pan out far differently than what you'd expect:
Individual (A) - He's a 25 year old lifter weighing 200lbs at 5% bodyfat. He performed a 40 minute anaerobic workout yesterday, consisting of deadlifts up to 500lbs, so his 190lbs of lean mass still has a severely upregulated glucose transport status (meaning his muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, nerves, heart cells, etc. are still ready to soak up whatever energy is out there). It's morning, so his testosterone is at its peak, further directing energy toward bone, ligament, tendon and muscle synthesis and improved brain tissue integrity. He slept well, so the peak is significant and his nocturnal growth hormone release was optimal. Despite cortisol coming off of its peak when waking (which generally makes fat cells vie for the lion's share of food), he only has 10lbs of fat to exert a vote on the matter. He can eat a whole 24 inch birthday sheetcake and the worst case scenario is his workout later today might be slightly more lethargic. He doesn't have to "burn it off" because his body directs all calories toward cognitive and physical performance. There's nothing to burn off.
Individual (B) - She's a 45 year old sedentary professional weighing 200lbs at 30% bodyfat. She did cardio yesterday for 90 minutes, which supressed her metabolism and the very little testosterone she could have. She did not sleep well, because she had stress hormone release at night and in turn the corresponding insulin release, worrying about the following work day, so her nocturnal growth hormone was non-existent. She enters the day defeated from a physiological perspective and her 60lbs of bodyfat have a 10 to 1 vote over her 140lbs of lean mass. A small bowl of kashi cereal or Greek yogurt will only be used to grow more fat and perpetuate the stress cycle. But she heaps on top of that a glass of orange juice which skyrockets her insulin immediately. She fastidiously watches her Fitbit steps for the day, ensuring she gets over 15,000 to "burn off" the 2:00pm "healthy" granola bar she couldn't help but eat because her blood sugar and willpower sunk to its lowest point around that time of day. It's futile, because her insulin spike from a late afternoon apple, the granola bar, Panera at lunch and the morning cereal protect her fat cells from being touched today. Her dexa scan for the year shows yet another year of bone mass loss, even though she eats just a little less food than when she was in her 20s, emphasizes calcium intake more than ever, and makes a concerted effort to be active. The rule she lives by is "balance" which ends up continually depriving her body of sufficient vitamins, minerals and fatty acids; all the while she continues eating a diet predominantly made of carbohydrates which continues to signal her fat cells to grow or at least be protected. Her weight watchers points are generally spot on; yet she continues to grow heavier and fatter with every passing year.
The diligence of Individual (A) can be far far less than Individual (B). (A) has the scales tipped in his favor and he would have to work hard against himself every day for many consecutive days to undo all the good. If he ate a sheetcake every morning for a year, he would eventually interrupt and invert certain hormone cascades which have kept him lean. (B) has the scales tipped against her and she has to fight dutifully to get the battlefield moderately fair. Her eating and activity are complete nonsense for her current hormonal status. If she stopped working out, or only did anaerobic workouts, and ate ketogenically for 10 days in a row while focusing on stress management, she'd exit the inflammatory trap immediately.
So the trap persists. Every calorie is a hidden saboteur until the scales are in your favor. Every calorie is a bad calorie until then. Some are less bad than others, yes. But all will continue working against you, until you cross the threshold of favorable momentum.